A Racial Cleansing in America from “Scene on Radio”
In 1919, a white mob forced the entire black population of Corbin, Kentucky, to leave, at gunpoint. It was one of many racial expulsions in the United States. Host of Scene on Radio John Biewen, investigates.
100 years ago this year, a white mob forced the entire black population of Corbin, Kentucky, to leave the town at gunpoint. It was one of many racial expulsions in the United States, but if you were looking for an account of the incident, you would search the official histories of Corbin in vain.
Our friends at Scene On Radio investigated the story of what happened in Corbin and how it has all but disappeared from the public record. Until now. We join host John Biewen as he speaks to the Mayor of Corbin, Willard McBurney, a retired postal service manager.
Willard M.: People in my peer group, they said they had heard from their grandfathers or from their dads, and it was really just passed on down from generations, and that’s really the gist of my knowledge of this.
John Biewen: And what was it?
Willard M.: I heard that there was a group one night that forced a bunch of the blacks out of Corbin, but then I’ve heard that a lot of that, it wasn’t to that severity. That they were employed by the railroad company, and they did move some out, but then they brought them back in two weeks later to finish the job, and I think …
John Biewen: That is the railroad brought in another crew of black workers. In this version of the story, that’s proof that the expulsion was not about race. In fact, in affidavits collected for the state’s criminal investigation several months later, white eyewitnesses backed up the story told by the African-American men. They said the armed mob announced its intention to rid Corbin of black people, and that black baggage workers who tried to return a few days later were threatened and left again.
Speaker 10: I know that some of the Negroes who were compelled to leave Corbin were property owners, and had always been considered peaceful and law abiding.
Speaker 11: I do not consider that it would be safe for any of the Negroes to return to Corbin, Kentucky, at the present time.
John Biewen: As a result of the investigation in 1919, a man named [Steve Rogers 00:14:30], who had worked for the railroad, was convicted of leading the mob and spent two years in the Kentucky state penitentiary.
A lot of people in Corbin say there’s no point in dwelling on something that happened so long ago. That’s how Mayor McBurney feels. But at the same time, he admits the expulsion haunts his town and its image.
Willard M.: I had to go to a marketing meeting in Cincinnati.
John Biewen: McBurney remembers an incident in the late 1980s when he was working for the postal service.
Willard M.: There was probably over 100 of us in this meeting from various places …
John Biewen: The main speaker at the meeting was an African-American who’d flown in from Chicago.
Willard M.: And he was going through how our plans would do this, and that, and if any of us had any problems, he said, “Hey, I’ll personally come down and work with you on that, but,” he says, and he pointed his finger at me, he said, “I won’t come to Carbon.” That’s what he called Corbin. He said, “I will not come to Carbon.” And that really made me feel small, to feel singled out with a group of people. I knew that he had heard of the stigma that has followed Corbin, and I mean, there was someone from Chicago …
John Biewen: For decades after the race riot, Corbin was known as a white man’s town with a visible Klan presence. A town that would tolerate only a token handful of black people.
The criminal investigation did find that several whites stood up to the mob. A few protected black people in their homes or businesses, and as you heard, the local newspaper condemned the expulsion at the time. Journalist Elliot Jaspin says most people in Corbin and the other towns where racial expulsions took place don’t know this part of their history either.
Elliott Jaspin: When you have the fable, the heroic acts of the people in the community are lost. They lose their heroes.
John Biewen: Writer Silas House thinks white people in a place like Corbin are especially reluctant to talk about their town’s troubled past because of worries about eastern Kentucky stereotypes.
Silas House: Well, people think we’re all illiterate, ignorant hillbillies who are also racist and misogynistic and homophobic …
John Biewen: But the decades of silence from Corbin’s leaders may have backfired. Silas says by failing to publicly own up to the 1919 expulsion, Corbin has missed the chance to move past it.
Silas House: It was certainly talked about when I was a child, and when I was a teenager, and people still talk about it. They probably don’t talk about it to outsiders, but I think it’s important to talk about for several reasons. Number one, just to shed light on something that awful happening. Number two, it’s important to know about the place you’re from. Storytelling is important, and number three, it’s important to talk about because I don’t think that we live in that kind of place anymore, and to maybe shed some light on how different it is today.
Tim Thompson: (singing)
John Biewen: On the edge of Corbin, a congregation more than a century old meets in a sprawling, much newer building. Senior Pastor Tim Thompson of the First United Methodist Church says in August 2005, he was sitting in his office with some of his staff.
Tim Thompson: We were watching the news. Man, this thing is just wiped out New Orleans, and Biloxi, and all that coastline down there.
John Biewen: Thompson and his staff decided to turn their church into emergency housing for people who’d lost their homes to Hurricane Katrina.
Tim Thompson: I went up before the whole church on Sunday morning and said, “Here’s what we want to do.” We raised the issue. “We’re certain some of the folks that are going to come and live with us are going to be black. We’re certain of that,” and we just said, “Whatever. Whoever comes, we don’t care. It doesn’t matter. We’ll deal with it. It’ll be fine,” and so the congregation said, “Okay.”
John Biewen: The church hosted about 25 people from the Gulf Coast. They stayed in the church for weeks or months. About half were African-American.
Tim Thompson: Our hope was that maybe a few of the black folks that came would stay here and live, and become a Corbinite. Live in Corbin, and essentially become pioneers. So 15 or 20 years from now, there’s a growing population of black people in this town.
John Biewen: But a year and a half later, almost all of the dozen or so African-American guests from the Gulf Coast had gone back home or moved onto places like Louisville or Lexington. All except [David Sloan 00:19:46], who we heard at the top of the piece cutting his friend’s hair. David came to Corbin from Biloxi.
David Sloan: I’m thankful that the church had the vision to open up their door to bring us up here. I’m an adventurer. I’m a partier. I’ll try anything once.
John Biewen: When I met David, he was working in a cabinet factory in Corbin. He said he’d gotten some cold looks in town, and he thought unfair treatment in a couple of previous jobs.
David Sloan: A lot of people up here are stuck back in the 60s.
John Biewen: But he said Corbin had not lived up to its old image as a sundown town, a place where a black person better get out before dark or else. His 79 year old friend from nearby Barberville, [Laverta Boose 00:20:26], agrees. She told me, these days, she likes to shop in Corbin.
Laverta Boose: It used to be that you could walk on the street. “Oh, there go a nigger down the street.” You would hear this in Corbin, Kentucky, but now it seems to be much, much better. Now you can walk into a store, you can get a nice smile.
John Biewen: Still, some people in Corbin say their town has a lot of work to do in putting its hateful image to rest, starting with some straight talk about what really happened in 1919.
Laura Smith: You know, you were here 10 years ago, and I don’t think that you would recognize downtown if you came back …
John Biewen: Laura Smith, the Corbin native who told the story of her mother’s lie about where they lived … I checked in with her on the phone the other day, and she recorded herself. Laura is now 38. She lives in Egypt, Kentucky.
Laura Smith: Yes.
John Biewen: That’s awesome.
Laura Smith: Yeah, isn’t it a good place name?
John Biewen: Egypt is just 45 minutes from Corbin. Her parents still live there, and she’s in pretty close touch with what’s happening in Corbin.
Laura Smith: We have a farm to table restaurant downtown that features really great regional food as well as craft beers. We have a really great coffee shop …
John Biewen: Laura says with the coal economy’s decline, which affects the important railroad business in Corbin, the town has had other economic successes. A new farmer’s market led to other foodie businesses and the coffee shop, all owned by younger people who had lived elsewhere and came back home.
Laura Smith: And they tend to be pretty progressive, too, so when I walk into a downtown restaurant now, one of the surprising thing is that, one, it’s packed, and there’s actually people back downtown, which is great to see, and, two, it’s a lot of young people, and it’s very much a diverse crowd. People of color …
John Biewen: Laura doesn’t know of any meaningful change in the actual black population in Corbin. She thinks those diverse people she sees downtown are mostly just in for the day from the surrounding area.
Laura Smith: … college students, and then there’s also folks who are driving down from Lexington and places like that, or tourists who are staying in the area or on their way to other places, so I’m not sure …
John Biewen: But in the town known as the home of Colonel Sanders, you can now get a cup of fair trade coffee, and a local restaurant declared itself a sanctuary in the face of the Trump administration’s travel ban on Muslim countries. Corbin’s vibe is increasingly inclusive, as Laura puts it, which makes it all the more unfortunate, in her opinion, that the town still doesn’t acknowledge its troubled past. There’s still no public marker of any kind about what happened in 1919.
In 2007, the same year a version of my piece about Corbin aired on NPR, Laura and a young newspaper reporter in town organized a display about the racial expulsion at the public library. Showing some of the documents you heard about in this piece, the affidavits about the race riot.
Laura Smith: You know, court proceeding documents, clips from the local newspaper, and also some of the national newspapers that covered it, and those were put on display at the public library for anybody to view. There wasn’t like a public dialogue around it, but they were publicly presented.
John Biewen: Also in 2007, the Corbin city government organized a lecture series on the history of the town featuring a local historian. Laura went to those lectures, and was disappointed.
Laura Smith: You know, it kind of went from the founding and kind of early, early history of the town to jumping forward to the mid to late 1920s. So there was a sizeable gap of history that wasn’t talked about, including the year 1919.
John Biewen: Today, the city of Corbin’s website features a history page. It includes some colorful details about the town’s labor history. It even mentions some violence among railroad and timber workers in the late 19th century, but it says “gave the town a rough reputation at the time.” But about the expulsion of hundreds of black people in 1919, and the town’s image problems as a result of that? Nothing.
Laura Smith: As somebody who’s from a town where, you know, a significant race riot occurred, I think it’s incredibly important that we air that, and talk about it, and have constructive dialogue around it, and memorialize it in some way. And I think that while there are folks that would think that would be detrimental to the town, I actually think it would be incredibly beneficial for the town and the good efforts that are happening there for that to happen.
Nathan Connelly: Thanks to John Biewen and our friends at SceneOnRadio.org. That’s SceneOnRadio.org for that story of the racial expulsion at Corbin, Kentucky, in 1919.